Blu Tuesday: The Night Of and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“The Night Of”

WHAT: After picking up a young woman in the city and returning to her Upper West Side townhouse to have some fun, Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) wakes up to find her stabbed to death. In a moment of panic, Naz flees from the scene and is eventually captured and charged for murder. While all evidence points towards him, defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro) believes that Naz is telling the truth about his innocence and offers to help clear his name… or at the very least, get rich off the trial.

WHY: “The Night Of” was originally supposed to star James Gandolfini before the actor’s untimely death, but within the first few episodes of the HBO limited series, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than John Turturro in the role. The veteran character actor is so riveting as the down-on-his-luck attorney that it seems a near-certainty he’ll walk away with an Emmy for his performance. He’s that good, and the same could be said for the rest of the cast, including co-star Riz Ahmed and supporting players like Bill Camp, Michael Kenneth Williams and Peyman Moaadi. However, what really elevates “The Night Of” beyond the typical crime drama is the superb writing by co-creators Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, which delivers a probing examination of the systemic problems in the U.S. criminal justice system (from the police, to the prisons, to the lawyers) and how one crime can affect the lives of not only the accused but the people connected to them as well. Though the actual investigation feels a bit rushed, and the series doesn’t hit as many highs in the later episodes, “The Night Of” is an excellent piece of filmmaking that challenges the way we watch television and tell stories.

EXTRAS: Sadly, there’s no bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”

WHAT: Several years after defeating the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her fearsome Jabberwocky, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to the magical world of Underland when the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) becomes terribly ill over the presumed death of his family. Desperate to save them before she loses her dear friend forever, Alice steals a time-travel device called the Chronosphere from Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen) in order to go back in time and prevent their deaths.

WHY: We all knew that a sequel to 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” was bound to happen, especially after raking in just over $1 billion at the box office, but what’s most surprising is that it took this long to get made. Maybe Disney was busy trying to convince director Tim Burton to return, or perhaps they thought the six-year respite would help moviegoers forget just how bad the first film was, but it was all for naught, because the Burton-less “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is just as awful as its predecessor, if not more so. For a movie all about time, it doesn’t respect that of its audience, trudging its way through a miserable and overly long Mad Hatter/Red Queen origin story that didn’t need to be told. Though some of the performances (namely Helena Bonham Carter’s deliciously over-the-top villain) are actually quite entertaining, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is just another pile of candy-colored CG vomit that manages to waste its talented cast, all while ensuring (hopefully) that we never have to endure another one of these dreadful movies ever again.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director James Bobin, there’s an in-depth look at making the film, costume and character featurettes, an interview with co-star Sacha Baron Cohen, deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Cafe Society”

WHAT: Discontent with working in his father’s jewelry store, young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves New York City for the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, where he’s taken under the wing of his talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) and quickly falls in love with his beautiful assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

WHY: Woody Allen’s 47th (!) feature film is a marked improvement upon his last two movies, but while it delivers all the usual shtick that audiences have come to expect from the writer/director, that’s part of the problem. Allen’s films have always felt very similar, but “Café Society” is practically self-plagiarism in the way that it borrows story threads and characters from previous movies. Though the ensemble cast is fantastic (Jesse Eisenberg is one of the better Allen surrogates in recent years, while even Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively manage to be charming), “Café Society” falls apart in the final act as its barebones plot begins to run on fumes. Lame subplots involving Bobby’s sister (Sari Lennick) and gangster brother (Corey Stoll) only get in the way of the more interesting love story, which benefits from Eisenberg and Stewart’s excellent chemistry. It’s not quite enough to rescue “Café Society” from the mediocrity that plagues most of Allen’s recent films, but for a filmmaker who seems completely bereft of new ideas, it’s a lot better than it should be.

EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the red carpet premiere and a photo gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Our Kind of Traitor”

WHAT: While on vacation in Morocco, married couple Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) befriend a charismatic Russian man named Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), unaware that he’s a money launderer for the mafia. When Dima requests their assistance in defecting to the U.K. along with his family, Perry and Gail are unwittingly thrust into the world of international espionage.

WHY: There’s been a renewed interest in the work of British spy novelist John le Carré over the last five years, with several of his books adapted into feature films (“A Most Wanted Man”) and TV miniseries (“The Night Manager”). The author’s 2010 novel “Our Kind of Traitor” is the latest to receive the big screen treatment, but unfortunately, it’s mired in mediocrity. The movie doesn’t quite stack up to le Carré’s earlier material; it’s slightly preposterous and not very suspenseful. Though the author has a real knack for making the mundane exciting (see: Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), “Our Kind of Traitor” just feels mundane, to no fault of the cast. In fact, McGregor and Skarsgard are both good in their respective roles – especially the latter, who seems to be having fun as the flamboyant Russian. Unfortunately, Susanna White’s direction is so stale and unengaging that their performances are squandered on a final product more befitting of a TV movie than a feature film.

EXTRAS: There are three behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as cast interviews and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Pan’s Labyrinth”

WHAT: In 1944, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother travel to the Spanish countryside to live with her new stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). While exploring an ancient stone labyrinth in the woods, Ofelia meets a devilish faun named Pan (Doug Jones), who believes that she’s the lost princess of a magical kingdom. Desperate to escape her war-torn reality, Ofelia is given three dangerous tasks to complete before she can return home.

WHY: It’s not every day you see a film that leaves you absolutely speechless, but Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-horror flick, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is so visually stunning that it’s impossible to look away, even during the moments of visceral violence. Don’t let the subject matter fool you, though: “Pan’s Labyrinth” may resemble a children’s fable, but the fantastical beasts within – including a giant toad, a pale monstrosity that eats little kids (and has the paintings to prove it), and the not-so-friendly titular faun – are the stuff of nightmares. Brilliantly blending fantasy with the harsh reality of post-Civil War Spain, del Toro has created a multi-layered film that’s rich in detail and emotion. It’s almost as if he was developing two separate stories and then decided to smash them together into one movie, and it works remarkably well, to the point that by the end of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” you’re not quite sure whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. Whatever the answer, one thing’s for certain: the land of make-believe can serve up some pretty scary shit.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes the 2007 audio commentary by director Guillermo del Toro, new interviews with del Toro, novelist Cornelia Funke and co-star Doug Jones, a quartet of making-of documentaries, an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

  

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